By Navnidhee B. Celly, MS, RD
Energy bars today are not just a source of calories but also pack in vitamins, minerals, fiber and some extras. Their consumption is increasing, whether consumed for a boost while running or a quick bite on the way to work. With a wide presence in the supermarkets, drugstores, and gyms, these portable sources of energy in tantalizing flavors like cool mint chocolate and cinnamon roll are difficult to miss. But, with an aisle full of choice, which ones are the best? Let’s find out.
Benefits of energy bars and who might benefit:
A wide range of energy bars are available that differ in taste and nutritional profile. They are most often consumed by two sections of the population – those who workout, hike or are athletes and those who look for a nutritious alternative to snacking or as a mealtime substitute. In all cases, energy bars are an easy access to calories for fast energy, which come from the carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Traditionally, energy bars relied on higher amounts of carbohydrates, with moderate amounts of fat and protein. Athletes prefer carbohydrates for short-term, maximum performance as required for sprinting. Fats provide longer-term, more sustained energy that is helpful for endurance events such as cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Proteins are the least efficient source of energy and are used primarily to maintain and repair body tissues. When consumed before or during a workout, energy bars help combat fatigue, and prevent the stores of blood glucose and muscle glycogen from falling too low before peak performance. Energy bars consumed after a workout act as a rich source of carbohydrate to refuel muscles and replace lost nutrients.
Energy bars are also convenient for those days when there is no time for breakfast or to replace a meal for those wanting to lose weight. With flavors like chocolate chip cookie dough and cappuccino mocha swirl, they sound, look and taste a lot like desserts, however, they are a better alternative to a bar of ice cream or a bag of chips, as the latter are high on calories and low in nutrients. Consumers in this category benefit from energy bars that are higher in protein and fiber and provide sufficient vitamins and minerals to compensate for those that would have been found in the skipped meal. Small serving size helps to lower the calorie intake. Half-size versions of energy bars are also becoming popular as sources of enough energy right before and after a run, as a perfect nutritious snack with mid-afternoon coffee, or to satisfy the after-meal craving for a dessert.
Nutritional profile of energy bars
Check the detailed chart for a listing of sizes, calories and nutritional info of major vegan energy bars.
Calorie content of energy bars range from about 100 to 400 calories per bar; however, it’s important to note the serving size of the bar on its nutrition fact label. Lower-calorie energy bars range from 25 — 45 grams, while the higher-calorie energy bars are close to twice the size.
Carbohydrate ranges between 12 to 49 grams per bar. Most contain a blend of complex carbohydrates such as whole grains (rice, oats) with simple carbohydrates (raisins, dried fruit, figs, fruit concentrates), in addition to sugars (brown-rice syrup or high-fructose corn syrup). Some energy bars, for example, Clif and Larabar do not contain high-fructose corn syrup or any other refined ingredients.
Protein content ranges from as low as 2 grams to as high as 14 grams per bar. Most energy bars have 3 to 7 grams of protein. The source of protein in vegan bars is often soy protein. High protein energy bars are not necessary for people who get enough protein from their diets.
Fat content of energy bars ranges between 2 and 25 grams. For athletes, fat is a sustained source of energy for longer events; however, it can also slow digestion and keep fuel from getting to the muscles. It may also cause stomach upset, and thus is not recommended, before a race or bike ride. Consumers must also watch out for the bad type of fat (saturated fat) as some energy bars do contain higher amounts of it.
Fiber content of energy bars ranges between 1 and 12 grams. Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar, creating a steady increase and decline in blood sugar levels for more sustained energy. Too much fiber, however, may slow digestion and can make you take extra pit stops during a race or workout. Before a workout energy bars with no more than 5 grams of fiber should be chosen (1). However, if used as a meal substitute or a snack, higher-fiber varieties are fine. They’ll postpone hunger cravings and promote a feeling of fullness. Some manufacturers also add functional dietary fibers such as Inulin that, in addition to a fiber source, holds in moisture, thus keeping the energy bars fresher longer.
Fortification of energy bars with vitamins and minerals is common. When used as a snack or meal replacement, this vitamin-mineral fortification can help make up for deficiencies in the diet. In addition, extra antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene, may help prevent oxidative damage caused by exercise. Choose an energy bar with no more than 100% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamins and minerals (2).
Organic ingredients: Some energy bars such as Organic Food Bar, Pure Organics, and Nature’s Path bars are made entirely out of organic ingredients, while others like Odwalla and Clif contain non-organic ingredients as well.
What could go wrong with over consumption of energy bars?
Energy bars as a portable source of quick energy or a snack in a time crunch situation are better than munching on a candy bar or keeping the stomach empty. However, if the number of energy-bar wrappers start to outnumber real food, it is important to become reacquainted with fruits, vegetables and other wholesome foods. Over consuming energy bars is not advisable for the following reasons:
1. A diet rich in energy bars might lack variety and might result in displacing natural foods from the diet. For example, one may often choose a “Chocolate Brownie Bar” instead of a pre-exercise fruit; or dieters often substitute natural and whole foods with energy bars, however, fresh fruits and vegetables are the most health-protective foods. With low intake, it is possible to end up with a lower intake of fiber, health protective phytochemicals and other important nutrients.
2. The human body needs a balanced amount of nutrients and it could potentially be easy to consume mega doses of vitamins and minerals, especially if energy bars are consumed in addition to a multivitamin or mineral supplement and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.
Some tips to make the best use of energy bars.
- Read the nutrition label before choosing an energy-bar. Since the carbohydrate, protein, fat and fiber content varies widely, choose one that meets your needs. Also, bars containing high-fructose corn syrup or palm kernel oil contain more than desirable amounts of sugar and saturated fat, so watch out!
- Drink at least 12 ounces of water with each energy-bar, whether working out or eating it as a snack at your desk.
- If using an energy bar as a nutritious snack or a meal replacement:
- Look for a bar that has at least 3 g of fiber, is high in protein and is fairly low in saturated fat and sugars. Super-sized protein content of some energy bars is not advisable.
- Pay attention to the total calories. Consider eating half a bar to keep your caloric intake within limits.
- Supplement the bar with a banana, dried apricots, raisins, orange juice, yogurt or other wholesome, unrefined snack food for more balanced nutrition.
- During exercise or sporting events
- Eat energy bars slowly and aim to eat one bar per hour of exercise.
- Opt for energy bars with no more than 8 to 10 grams of protein, before or during exercise.
- Remember to supplement with real food for day-to-day snacking.
- Eat a variety of energy bars with natural ingredients but whenever possible replace them with whole grain bagels, nuts, peanut butter, apples, carrots, and other healthy snacks.
- If you have specific medical conditions such as diabetes, consult a Registered Dietitian or your physician. They can advice on which energy bars would be suitable for specific health conditions.
A perfect energy bar is one that meets your nutritional needs and taste preference. The real key to finding out which bar works best for you is to experiment. Whether for snacking or exercising buy a few different brands and test them to find the energy bar that’s light on your stomach, tastes good and fuels your muscles for your workout. If chosen wisely, they can be a great ‘traveling’ fuel and better than candy bars, but don’t forget to eat a variety of wholesome foods!
- Applegate, Liz. Nutrition: Taking the bar. Runner’s World (Oct 1998): 24(3).
- Lofshult, Diane. Energy bar exam. IDEA Fitness Journal (June 2006): 81(1).
To see the nutritional values of many common vegan energy bars, click here.